Europe and Secondary Iran Sanctions: Where Do We Go Now?

Any country can of course withdraw from the Paris Accord, the INF treaty, UNESCO, UNWRA, the community of nations that recognize that Jerusalem is in part an illegally occupied city, etc. But the U.S. withdrawal from the UNSC-approved JCPOA (or Iran Deal), followed by its imposition of secondary sanctions on countries that without specific U.S. approval trade with Iran is another matter. The U.S. is placing its law over international law. It is placing the judgment of Trump, Bolton and Pompeo over that of Putin, Xi, Merkel, Marcon, May, Mogherini, Obama, etc…. the pillars of the existing if crumbling world order.

In that world, in order of GDP, Iran ranks around 25th, above Austria, Norway, UAE, Nigeria. With its vast natural resources and educated population, it has boundless development potential and is eager for foreign investment. It’s a country much of the world (China, Russia, India, Pakistan) engages with routinely, while much of the world engages it only to the extent the world’s policeman permits. (Italy and Greece have managed to maintain Iranian oil imports, having received permission from Washington to do so for an extra 180 days. They’re the only European, NATO-member countries exempted. Other countries granted “waivers” by the world cop are China, India, Iraq, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. )

Europe once traded freely and profitably with Iran. For the U.S. to now say to Daimler-Mercedes and Peugeot, you can’t assemble cars in Iran, or Airbus you can’t supply passenger aircraft to Iran as you’d planned—because we insist that Iran stop supporting Hizbollah and withdraw its forces fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria and open up its nuclear sites even more than it has so far—-is to say, follow us towards war. You’re our allies, for god’s sake. We pay for your security. Obey!

Europe Rebels

But on June 8 at the European Union headquarters in Brussels, EU High Representative Frederica Mogherini and the foreign ministers of the E3 (Jean-Yves Le Drian of France, Heiko Maas of Germany, and Jeremy Hunt of the United Kingdom) made this terse statement on the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, and its threat to impose secondary sanctions on nations continuing to trade with Iran over its objection:

“The lifting of nuclear-related sanctions is an essential part of the deal – it aims at having a positive impact not only on trade and economic relations with Iran, but most importantly on the lives of the Iranian people. We are determined to protect European economic operators engaged in legitimate business with Iran, in accordance with EU law and with UN Security Council resolution 2231. This is why the European Union’s updated Blocking Statute enters into force on 7 August to protect EU companies doing legitimate business with Iran from the impact of US extra-territorial sanctions.

“The remaining parties to the JCPOA have committed to work on, inter alia, the preservation and maintenance of effective financial channels with Iran, and the continuation of Iran’s export of oil and gas. On these, as on other topics, our work continues, including with third countries interested in supporting the JCPOA and maintaining economic relations with Iran. These efforts will be intensified and reviewed at Ministerial level in the coming weeks.”

Translation: “Having withdrawn support for a resolution voted on unanimously by the UNSC in 2015, the U.S. itself is in violation of international law. Your attempt to prevent free trade between the world’s countries and Iran, for the benefit of the Iranian people, the attainment of which was one of the agreement’s chief objectives, is illegal. We the nations of the EU will try to use our resources to help our corporations circumvent the hurdles you attempt to illegally place in our paths using your control over the world banking system. We will work with third countries (read: Russia, China, India, Japan, South Korea) to to sustain European business with Iran despite your arrogant efforts to twist our arms.”

John Bolton’s Drive Towards War

It may be that John Bolton is unhinged enough to think that the U.S. retains the capacity to forge an alliance against Iran comparable to the alliance George W. Bush (and Paul Wolfowitz) forged prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. (Recall that that alliance lacked support from France, Belgium and Germany.) This time even Britain might balk at further aggressive U.S. moves towards Iran. The U.S. has been busily forging an axis including itself, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE versus Iran. But this axis is not in the best shape, post-Khoshoggi.

Many unknowns will factor in as Bolton plans regime change. Key figures in the anti-Iran cabal may fall. Will Jared Kushner be damaged by the Mueller findings? Will Crown prince Muhammad bin Salman get sidelined? Will a Democrat-led House stymie the Trump-Bolton drive towards conflict? Don’t count on it. The Clinton Democrats include lots of neocons who are no better on Iran than the Lindsay Graham Republicans. And among “progressive” Democrats, the level of ignorance about foreign affairs is astonishing. (Elizabeth Warren in particular is horrible on the Israel issue.) Liberal Democrats quickly become savage imperialists.

I can certainly imagine the Democratic victory Tuesday night followed soon by an assault on Iran, justified as they always are by a temporarily persuasive pretext and launched with bipartisan support. Because anti-imperialism and actual analysis of capitalism is never a part of Democratic politician’s message. You can’t get elected that way.

The fact that Alexandria Cortez-Ocasio, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America viewed by Fox News as the most “radical left” of current Democratic politicians, could tweet upon John McCain’s death that the notorious warmonger was”an unparalleled example of human decency and American service” indicates the self-imposed limits on progressive speech. Meanwhile pundits predict that the Democratic victory in the House bodes a harder U.S. line on Russia and North Korea, some contending that that will be a good thing.

What does it mean for Iran? The rebounding Democratic Party, deeply influenced by the Israel and Saudi lobbies, has hardly been a consistent or unified voice for peaceful coexistence with the Islamic Republic. All kinds of people the right calls “liberals” (Hillary Clinton?) are comfortable with coups d’etat (Honduras?), invasions (Iraq), illegal covert subversion operations (Syria), targeted murders via drone strikes. Hence the inevitably bipartisan support for all the current U.S. military operations. The culture of military-worship, incessant statements of reverence to the military (any ex-military person interviewed on cable news is told, as if my editorial director’s instruction: “and thank you for your service”), facilitate unthinking support for war, especially if it appears the war pits the U.S. and its allies against an obvious enemy.

Does the U.S. Have Allies in Its Iran Regime-Change Drive?

But the U.S. has declined under Trump as a respected international actor. It’s obviously a country ruled by a cruel, unpredictable buffoon, next to whom the Iranian leaders seem wise and mature. After Trump made his stupid pronouncement May 8, European foreign ministers rushed to contact Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Jafad Zarif, expressing regrets at the U.S. decision and pledging their determination to overcome the U.S. punitive secondary sanctions. Trump has succeeded in solidifying Euro-Iranian solidarity against a naked attack on free market principles and the principle of sovereignty of nations.

The question is, having so polarized the world, could Trump get away with the “Bomb bomb bomb Arab” campaign advocated by John McCain (for some reason pronounced a national hero after his death) and
neocons then and now? Have people been adequately educated to realize that an attack on Iran would be morally wrong, logically unjustifiable, horrific and the grounds for more rage at greatest purveyor of violence in world history? Or might they once again buy the bull, realizing again six months down the road that, dammit, they lied about this war!?

I suspect what Trump hopes for is an Iranian closure of the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of the world’s oil passes, to prevent the shipping of Saudi oil in response to the U.S. attempt to prevent Iranian trade (which by the way constitutes an act of war). The U.S. could blame Iran for provoking war by such action, and idiots in this country will immediately be convinced, indignant, outraged. Republicans, Democrats, Independents alike. And bombs away!

What was the popularity rating of George W. Bush—a pre-Trump moron—just prior to the criminal attack on Iraq in 2003, based on lies, which has produced nothing but misery for the region and world? It was 70%. Trump in contrast wages war on the world—verbal war, economic war, the occasional dramatic if pointless gesture like the deployment of a MOAB in Afghanistan last year—without (yet) slaughtering thousands, maintaining popularity at around 40%. He’s in a weaker position than was the smirking chimp at the outset of his great still-unpunished crime. Is Trump in a position to deploy this hideous morass of accumulated cable news-approved propaganda about Iran (including its imagined threat to “wipe Israel off the map” with nukes) to unite the nation against the Persian Empire?

I don’t think so. The U.S. expended a great deal of geopolitical capital when it led “from behind” the criminal assault on Libya, destroying the modern state, in 2011. The U.S. in the form of Hillary Clinton pronounced the mission “humanitarian” while it was in fact a bid for regime change ending successfully in the disposition of Gaddafy’s body in a manner comparable to that of Khashoggi’s. Hillary famously found the murder hilarious, laughing for all to see on TV. Russia and China were furious and are unlikely ever again to approve a U.S.-led “humanitarian” mission. They know Hillary was pressing for the U.S. to announce a “no-fly zone” over Syria—a zone in which the Syrian state forces would be excluded due to U.S. diktat. With Russian war planes in the area. bombing the ISIL forces that had been generated by U.S. imperialism itself, violating Syrian territorial integrity and committing atrocities, the U.S. would provoke confrontation, possibly World War III.

Of course Putin opposed Clinton as the next U.S. president. Of course he preferred Trump, although he knew little about him; he knew he spoke in favor of friendship with Russia and was non-ideological, having no special opinion about the fate of Crimea. Now Trump is coordinating action in Syria against Islamist forces although Moscow supports the government in Damascus and the U.S. still officially wants it toppled. Trump seems to understand that Russia with very few overseas naval or air bases needs its presence in Syria dating back to the 1970s. He will surely have heard from Putin that in the Russian view the current Bashar al-Assad government in power, being secular, supported by the religious minorities such as Christians as well as by the bazaar merchants and others, as the best bet to support for Syrian stability. Trump probably has no firm view on the matter, and so is content to one day announce withdrawal of all troops from Syria, then the next day say, no, his generals tell him that’s not possible yet, sadly…

Foreign leaders’ spokespeople note politely that sometimes they don’t know what the U.S. position on something is, because the president’s words directly contradict those of the defense secretary or secretary of state. This is not a normal situation. Trump himself is seen as a barking dog whose yelps need processing through aides to indicate real U.S. policy to puzzled allies. But whatever aggressive tactics it adopts, it is clear that the U.S. plans for regime change in Iran, and Bolton has publicly boasted of this explicitly.

The Stupidity of the Trump Regime-Change Plot

It doesn’t make much sense though, actually, even from an imperialist’s point of view. The U.S. exercised hegemony over Iran from at least 1953, when the CIA famously re-installed the Shah, to 1979 when he was overthrown in the most genuine, massive revolution in modern Islamic history. The U.S. worked with the British to execute a coup against the elected prime minister Mossadegh. There was no effective international opposition although the Soviets and Chinese complained. In that instance, the U.S. oil companies benefited endlessly until civil society exploded in 1978-9. This episode caused someone in the CIA to invent the term “blowback.”

The U.S. oil companies would love to get back into Iran. The world knows this. But most countries’ leaders are indicating to one another that a U.S.-Israeli strike on Iran would be unacceptable—even, perhaps, in the wake of Iranian actions to close the narrow Strait of Hormuz. This is not 2003. The U.S. has shrunk in the world. It cannot get the world behind an Iran attack as it got the UN to approve the Afghan War in 2001, or as it got some of its closest allies behind the criminal Iraq War in 2003, or got the UNSC behind the savage destruction of Libya in 2011, or got French and British forces to help the U.S. help the al-Qaeda-aligned opposition forces in Syria since 2011. Trump cannot assume European allies’ assistance in a war with Iran.

The Iranian leadership understands U.S. weakness. Haven’t the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan been there for 17 years? And haven’t the Taliban acquired control of nearly half the country, despite billions of U.S. investments in the—demoralized, corrupt, desertion-prone—Afghan army? Hasn’t Afghanistan become a morass, a quagmire like Vietnam if much less bloody?

The U.S. has been unable to pacify this country neighboring Iran, sharing a 570 mile border with the country Iran is over twice as large and populous, with three times the urban population of Afghanistan. While Iranians are generally literate, 93% adults liable to read and write, only 31% of Afghans are literate. The Afghan Army is a joke; its desertion rate is scandalous; the frequency of “green-on-blue” killings is embarrassing. Blowback!

The Iranian military including Revolutionary Guards in contrast is formidable, well-trained and experienced. If the U.S. cannot successfully occupy and transform Afghanistan, how much less likelihood there is that it could at this point in history remold Iran through force!

Does Pompeo really believe that Iran will cave in the face of his ridiculous, insulting demands? Or that its refusal to do so will be perceived by the world as anything other than reasonable even if and when the U.S. and its odious friends launch their attack? Does he really think people in this country will support a war on behalf of the Saudis and Israelis?

There was a time when revulsion against South African apartheid spurred a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in this country. This helped bring down the racist regime. May a similar movement help end the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. The mid-term campaign brought forward large numbers of young people with strong feelings about the world situation based on awareness of facts. One must hope that as the U.S. secondary sanctions settle in, producing more misery from the Iranian people, a mass movement against the Iran sanctions takes shape. And that it link up with the truly progressive, anti-imperialist legislators in Congress, if there actually are any.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: